You’d be forgiven for thinking, from the title, that Valiant Hearts is some kind of JRPG. It’s not, although God alone knows why they didn’t directly translate the French title (Soldats Inconnus) because Unknown Soldiers is a much better name. Perhaps the answer is that such a title would sell the game wrong; it would suggest a degree of respect and sobriety which is entirely missing from the whole endeavour. Valiant Hearts has one massive problem: it can’t decide what it wants to be. It’s torn between being a serious This Is How It Was telling of WW1, and a ludicrous steampunky romp which plays merry hell with the history it earnestly tries to impart when it’s not about fistfighting an evil German baron on top of two ruined tanks in the middle of the Somme’s No Man’s Land. To say the game is tonally inconsistent is an understatement. It’s full-out atonal, right from the main menu screen: a morose soldier and his dog standing in mud and ruins while the sad theme music plays, juxtaposed with a jaunty text strapline about how many collectibles the game has.
This jarring collision of tones is nothing new for Ubisoft games, but they tend to have the excuse that Ubisoft uses anything up to a dozen separate development teams on the same game. But Valiant Hearts is the product of a single team: Ubisoft Montpellier. They must shoulder the entire blame for the mess this game is; creative direction doesn’t come into it. But what is Valiant Hearts?
At [valiant] heart it’s a 2D puzzle/adventure game – a pretty simplistic one at that – with occasional basic stealth sections and proper action sequences and boss fights thrown in, as well as semi-regular quick-time events. The game follows the interlinked story of four people – a German soldier, his French father-in-law, his American volunteer friend, and a Belgian nurse – and their dog pal who seems to appear wherever he’s needed in the story like some kind of omnipresent canine god. The game makes use of a truly lovely hand-drawn art style inspired by French comics, but unfortunately it doesn’t make good use of it a lot of the time.
Yeah, this is probably quite a good cartoonish representation of WW1.
THIS ISN’T. DO YOU HEAR ME UBISOFT MONTPELLIER.
While it’s quite refreshing to find a game about war that doesn’t focus on fighting, the puzzle gameplay that forms the majority of what you do is very obvious and tedious. Many of the puzzles are nothing more than traipsing side to side until you find an object you can pick up and then traipse to the other side of the environment to exchange that object for another one, then another one, and so on. Occasionally you will need to throw something at another object, or pull levers and crank wheels to manipulate very out of place machinery. Now, you could reductively describe even the adventure gaming greats in this manner if you were so inclined, but they disguised them with dialogue and such things as inventories that allowed you to carry more than one object at a time and therefore work on multiple puzzles at once. Valiant Hearts takes the reductive approach itself (even dialogue is replaced with pictograms in speech bubbles and repetitive French/German/English grunts), but this economical approach to the game does it no favours. The amount of backtracking needed to complete these simple puzzles makes the whole thing a chore, and waiting for machinery to complete its slow movements is equally tiresome.
When you’re not solving puzzles, you’re either doing repetitive QTEs with even more repetitive audio accompaniment (the generic dialogue snippets really grate when you have to hear the same ones over and over again in a short space of time) or doing the very simple action sequences such as dodging bombs dropped from a zeppelin as you drive towards the screen in a car, or driving a tank across No Man’s Land and blowing up enemy cannons, machine-gun bunkers, machine-gunners in balloons, and biplanes that try to strafe or bomb you. Yes, you shoot down biplanes with your comically oversized tank gun. No, this sort of thing isn’t very conducive to the Serious War Atmosphere the game tries to evoke the rest of the time. Neither is the fact that the first half of the game is concerned with chasing after an evil German baron with his own personal zeppelin who kidnaps a Belgian scientist who then invents poison gas and tanks for the Germans. At one point the game has you fight said evil Baron while he rides a flamethrowing tank inside a fort at Verdun, and you defeat him by tossing dynamite on him through the ridiculous pointless machinery that is also in the fort for no reason. And this isn’t even the most ludicrous thing in the game.
The tone veers maniacally all over the shop, often in the same scene. One sequence has you as Anna, the Belgian nurse (whose father is the kidnapped super-scientist), sawing off the arm of a wounded soldier (hidden on the other side of his body – the game is generally bloodless). While sawing away (by means of a QTE) the soldier screams quite horribly; however, once the QTE is over, he tips his cap to Anna in a cutesy manner and his speech bubble has a love heart in it. This isn’t even effective juxtaposition, it’s just a mess. If the game picked a tone and stuck with it, it would be generally stronger (although the basic and boring gameplay would remain).
If the game wants you to hate the injured because treating them is so boring, then mission accomplished I guess.
Near the beginning of the game, French conscript Emile (who seems definitely too old to have been conscripted in 1914, but I’ll let that slide) is wounded and captured by the Germans after a reasonably effective sequence where you control him as flag-bearer of his regiment, charging through machine-gun fire and artillery until finally wounded – although even this sequence is undermined by the fact that Emile’s tiny legs pump away comically even when he’s not moving forward, like some kind of Looney Tunes running-in-place. Once captured, you control him as an impressed camp helper – dressed in vest, apron, and shackles, with a ladle. You do cookhouse errands for the Germans until you can escape, and for the remainder of Chapter 1 – which spans some six months and perhaps four discrete scenes at different battles along the front – Emile stays dressed in his vest and apron and armed only with a ladle, even as he goes on commando missions into the German trenches and bonks soldiers over the head with his ladle. A baffling design decision that undermines what the game is trying to do.
Put the ladle down Emile. Just put it down. And put some clothes on.
Even when the game doesn’t undermine its own tone in this way, it fails to hit the appropriately sombre emotional beats it’s aiming for. What comes across instead is mawkish sentimentality, especially when that damn dog is involved. The game at one point attempts to make you feel sorry for the death of an unnamed German soldier who you briefly work alongside for the common goal of escaping from some collapsed tunnels, and who is later killed when you enable the French army to blow up the German tunnel network. The game then tries the most basic ‘unfeeling officers celebrated but this is tragic’ scene, but the caricature of it all and the sledgehammer unsubtlety of the whole thing makes it entirely ineffective at what it’s trying to do.
Lay it on a bit thicker, Valiant Hearts, I don’t think I got the point yet.
The game also bombards you with sentimental diary entries for the protagonists as well as historical facts for each level (and for each collectible that you can pick up). Some of these facts are illustrated with colourised photographs, and they can show quite gruesome scenes at odds with the frequently cutesy or comical tack the game takes (such as the aforementioned hat-tipping after patching up wounded soldiers), contrasted with gruesome images of real injuries.
The inclusion of this photograph in particular seems… unjustified.
Especially since the game is part sponsored by WW1 centenary organisations, it’s almost as if there’s a more strait-laced edutainment game in there struggling to break free from its cartoonish bonds. It plays fast and loose with history while trying to convince you that its portrayal is close to reality; this ranges from minor things like the game including CPR when that technique wasn’t invented until the middle of the 20th century, right through to the significant changes in historical presentation like having the first tanks be German because a kidnapped Belgian scientist invented them for a megalomaniacal baron, or poison gas being delivered by a gigantic underground metal-pipe machine that pumps gas to the surface.
I have yet to complete the game, but by Chapter 3 (which has reached 1917) the game has already faked out the death of three characters who turned out to be just fine afterwards, sometimes surviving ridiculous situations like being buried in debris after the collapse of an entire fort wired with dynamite. What this means is that should any of the characters actually die by the end of it, the game certainly won’t have earned the emotional weight it would try to give that event. At the moment, however, I’m not certain that it’ll go that way at all; I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end it turned out to be an entirely happy ending for the protagonist characters, with family reunited and American Freddie at peace with the death of his true love at long last.
It’s also not really an even-handed account of the war. The Germans are certainly cast as the antagonists and villains (even at the beginning of the game a map showing Europe refers to the ‘German Empire’ and ‘Austrian Empire’ but has just ‘France’ and ‘United Kingdom’ for the Entente, implying a moral superiority by leaving ‘Empire’ off their labels); at least up until chapter 3 there has been no combat against the Entente troops whatsoever, with the German soldier Karl’s segments being focused on stealth and avoidance at most while Emile and Freddie happily slaughter scores of Germans with everything but firearms (none of the characters uses a gun for the duration, though grenades and entrenching tools and tanks and dynamite are all fair game for the murder of Germans). It’s very definitely portraying the war as having ‘good guys'; the only nuance given is that the Entente has some malicious officers in its armies, and the German Army has some normal non-evil men in its ranks. How progressive.
Much as it pains me, I can’t recommend Valiant Hearts at all. It’s getting a lot of accolades in various places, but to my eyes they’re entirely undeserved. While a lot of love has clearly gone into its production, it’s misdirected love and the end result is a messy, incoherent game which doesn’t even have a good gameplay frame on which to hang its tonal cacophony. The most gore-focused generic first-person shooter is a more honest portrayal of war than the one given in this game. The real tragedy of the Great War as portrayed by Valiant Hearts is that it’s a waste of a talented art team.